There are few jobs more maligned than that of the salesman. Images of fast-talking, oily fellows in cheap suits automatically spring to mind, as well as adjectives like untrustworthy or intimidating.
Furthermore, this shady character is always imagined as male, and yet I’ve worked in sales for over 20 years, and I’m neither male nor would you ever find me in a cheap suit. I don’t consider myself pushy, dishonest or fast with the words either. Instead, what I see in sales is the opportunity to go out there, prove I can demonstrate the value of a product, all while achieving career satisfaction. And since I’m just a little competitive, it’s an outlet for this aspect of my personality to thrive.
And it has. I began my sales career working in a variety of industries switching to concentrate on technology before joining Skillsoft in 2001. Initially, I worked in channel sales and in a short time qualified for my first President’s Club, a reward given to those salespeople considered the most successful which includes an all-expenses-paid holiday in another country. Today I’m Area Sales Vice President UK, for Skillsoft, the global leader in eLearning with a team of 25 salespeople reporting to me.
Apart from the buzz of a sale, the other big attraction to a career in sales is it offers huge potential for opportunity, personal development, and advancement. I took advantage of this and in 2005 I became a manager for the first time. For the next 11 years, I served as a channel leader overseeing a team of six salespeople and Skillsoft channel partners working in Europe, Middle East, and Africa.
When opportunity knocks.
In 2017 another new opportunity arose, and once again I decided to go for it. I was very apprehensive though – I was the only female in the candidate pool (so I thought), the only non-native English speaker, but mostly because the role meant my family would have to move from the Netherlands, where we were based for 25+ years, to the UK. But the truth is I am a ”fighter.” My mother used to say, ”Stay positive and never give up – when you do so, you can move mountains.” I got the role….
Like all professionals, I struggle to achieve a semblance of life-work balance. I guess we all have this extraordinary desire to be good, if not ‘”very good” at what we do professionally, to be the perfect parent, the perfect partner while also trying to maintain friendships and a social life. I admire anyone who manages this – I’d love to know the secret to their success!
I know the data portrays sales as a very male-dominated industry. Amy Palmer, sales team leader at durhamlane, a leading sales transformation specialist company, noted, “Unfortunately, I feel women still think that a sales job would be more suited to a man and that men would more likely have the skills.” I encourage women not to be deterred from what can be an incredibly rewarding and financially lucrative career. And sometimes the numbers tell a different story. Here at Skillsoft our sales team is about 50:50 female to male and I’m proof that my gender was not used against me when it came to leadership roles. I continue to be inspired by all the female sales professionals delivering great results year after year.
Making it work.
A career in sales is hard; it asks a lot of you both mentally and physically, but if you have what it takes, and are competitive, the rewards are bountiful. I would recommend, especially if you want to progress to leadership levels, that you avail of either the learning opportunities at your company or pursue it independently. I am extremely fortunate that Skillsoft offers a selection of learning programmes and the Women in Action Leadership Programme was particularly instrumental in helping me prepare and succeed as a manager. Being able to complete it in ‘my peace’ was key, and I enjoyed every track, including Maintaining a Work-life Balance (of course!), Managing Change (critical!) and Understanding Organizational Biases (very helpful indeed!). I am delighted to see that here at Skillsoft there are many leaders, both female and male, who continue to advocate gender equality, both internally and externally.
The bottom line is, and we know this thanks to the vast amount of research that is carried out in the area, gender diversity is a key factor in improved performance.
Finally, I’ve loved my years in sales and never had an experience that demonstrated any bias against women salespeople. If you are thinking of sales as a career, I say do not be swayed by reports of sexism and instead to embrace the challenge and go for it.
Agata Nowakowska is the Area Sales VP UK, Skillsoft EMEA